Soul Superfood:  Field Peas and CowPeas

When I was young, we used to enjoy one variety of field or cowpea - black-eyed peas - which we only bought dried and ate as Hoppin' John at New Years.  I always dutifully ate a few scoops of the heavily salted, porky peas and then moved on to whatever else was being offered for dinner, because they were so filling that I wouldn't have room for anything else if I ate too much.  The standard black and white cowpea was pretty much all that was available in our big box grocery store on Long Island, New York, though I never recall my grandmother pining for anything else.

Now my family and I enjoy field peas and cowpeas peas all year round, though my favorite time of year is in mid- to late summer, when I can get fresh peas at my local farmers market.  I love seeing the crates teeming with all types of peas, which are also quite affordable, and a friend of mine on WIC buys them by the armful.  My kids love the colorful beauty of the long, knobby pods and popping out the delicate little gems.  And they have, so far, never resisted eating them, whether prepared from fresh or dried.

Though some foodies consider field and cowpeas to be "lowly", I think that either (a) they have never had well prepared field peas, and, or (2) they hold some residual Antebellum snobbery toward this regal legume that survived the Middle Passage with the men and women that then cultivated it in North America.  The ancestors to the modern black eye pea and sea pea were a major part of the West, North, and Central African diet and thus became key to the African American diet, especially during the dark times. The plant's roots added beneficial nitrogen to the soil for other "cash" crops, so they were widely planted and thrived throughout the warm, moist climate of the American South.  They grow well without much fuss and even in difficult soils and have endured for hundreds of years.

These peas are almost perfect food, with the right balance of protein, calories, minerals, vitamins, and have virtually no fat.  In addition, field and cowpea carbs burn slowly, which means that your energy levels will stay higher longer without needing to refuel.  Finally, field and cowpeas are a rich source of Folic Acid - crucial in a woman's pre-natal diet.

Nowadays there seems to be a new 'heirloom' varietal unearthed every few months, available only to those in the know and with the cash to shell out several dollars for a small bag.  I admit that I have fallen in love with these newly re-discovered varieties like purples and pinks, and I enjoy preparing them all sorts of ways.  But these new heirlooms seem to be marketed almost exclusively toward foodies and are certainly priced out of the range of folks on a limited budget.  I would love to one day see all varieties of cow peas and beans, once the most accessible of foods, again accessible to all.